Unhomely Empire: A Forum, Part 3

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By Onni Gust (University of Nottingham)

I am writing this response in the uncomfortable and over-lit departure gate of Chicago O’Hare’s international airport, heading back to the UK from the NACBS conference, and from a state, Illinois, that I once fleetingly and ambivalently called ‘home’. This seems like an apt place to be reflecting on Ellen Smith and Liz Egan’s generous readings of, and insightful responses to, Unhomely Empire.

As so many of us know from our own lived experiences and feelings of non-belonging or un-belonging, ‘home’ is a messy concept; difficult to pin down in the present, haunted by the past. I began the research for Unhomely Empire in the context of debates about multi-culturalism and Britishness that were taking place in the early 2000s. Looking back from the perspective of today’s intensification of racism and xenophobia, it feels almost incredible that ‘multi-culturalism’ was a mainstream political and social aspiration. However, there were many limitations to the ways that ‘multiculturalism’ was being enacted in British politics and society.[1] ‘Multi-culturalism’ rested on tolerance rather than acceptance of difference, it failed to decentre whiteness and left intact the idea that ‘Britishness’ is synonymous, or at least primarily, about white, English men. By examining the construction of belonging amongst British imperial elites, Unhomely Empire sought to contribute to debates around the meaning of British national identity and to the decentring of whiteness.

As both Ellen and Liz note, my method of reading across different imperial sites and showing how ideas circulated, as well as the focus on individual biographies, owes much to the work of Catherine Hall, Kathleen Wilson, and others who pioneered the ‘New Imperial History’.[2] Unhomely Empire was also a response to the historiography of Enlightenment and a dialogue with the work of Jennifer Pitts, Uday Singh Metha, and Silvia Sebastiani.[3] I hoped to expand on their discussions of the relationship between Enlightenment thought, race and imperial expansion, but also to show how these intellectual debates informed, and were informed by, thinkers’ social and cultural lives across Empire.

In their reflections, both Ellen and Liz’s question the extent to which the construction and circulation of a hegemonic discourse of ‘home’ permeated beyond the elite literati that is the focus of the book. What does this discourse have to do with the lascar on board the merchant ship, to an ayah accompanying British imperial families ‘home’ to Britain, or to free-coloured men (and women?) campaigning for their rights as British subjects? It would be incredible, and not totally inconceivable given the wealth of new research on Black Britain and the Black Atlantic, to find a diary in which an enslaved African talked of her sense of ‘home’ or to find evidence of a small mission in South India using Edgeworth’s Popular Tales to teach morality to their congregation. Yet even without this evidence, I think the hegemony of these elite ideas of ‘home’ and ‘exile’, and their constitution through whiteness, is palpable by the mid nineteenth century. It is the foundation for justifications for the criminalization of ‘wandering tribes’ in India and for the annihilation of Native American people; to represent people as lacking a sense of belonging to ‘home’ is a powerful means of othering. The idea that settlement and civilization are synonymous remains with us today, evidenced by the horrific perception and treatment of Roma and Gypsy people in the UK. The use of ‘migrant’ to refuse sympathy and rights to those seeking refuge in Britain is evidence of the enduring power of this discourse of belonging to dehumanize.

In my somewhat accidental and angst-ridden meanderings towards becoming a historian, however, I never imagined that I would dedicate so much of my labour and emotional energy to elite, white men. How depressing to have spent nearly a quarter of my life thinking with and about people who believed themselves superior to everybody else, entitled to exploit people’s labour and to claim the world’s resources! And yet I think it is important to understand the intimate workings of power. What I hope to have shown in Unhomely Empire is that this imperial literati were themselves caught-up in hierarchies and structures that they could not control and that the narrow vision of ‘home’ that they put forward was itself contingent upon their own insecurity within those structures. This is not to excuse them their racism, or the radical power differentials from which they benefited, or violence of the conquest in which they were deeply complicit. Rather, it is a reminder to us all to think about both the positions of power that we occupy, to be aware of the hegemonic discourses that shape us, and to use that awareness to resist and to build alternative and more capacious ways of belonging that will allow all of us to thrive.

[1] See for example, Tariq Madood, ‘Multiculturalism, Secularism and the State’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 1/3 (1998), pp.79-97.

[2] Kathleen Wilson’s A New Imperial History: culture, identity and modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660-1840 (Cambridge, 2004).

[3] Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: the rise of imperial liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2006); Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A study in ninteenth-century British liberal thought (Chicago, 1999); Silvia Sebastiani, The Scottish Enlightenment: race, gender and the limits of progress (New York, 2013).

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